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In Memoriam: Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas (1927-2010)

August 5, 2010 16 comments

From left to right: Dr. Lovaas, Nina Lovaas, Gary Mayerson

Editor’s note: On August 2, 2010, Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas passed away. We sincerely thank Dr. Lovaas for all of his contributions to the autism community.

In 1981, with the publication of Dr. Lovaas’ pioneering work, Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children (popularly known as “The ME Book”), the landscape of the world of autism was quite different than it is today.  In 1981, the prevalence of autism in the general population was reported to be only 4 in 10,000, hardly the 1 in 100 world epidemic that autism represents today.  While considered a relative rarity at the time, a diagnosis of autism in the 1960’s and 1970’s was considered by most  to be the beginning of a countdown to institutional care.  To add insult to injury, Bruno Bettelheim and others were disseminating and perpetuating the notion that autism was caused by cold and unfeeling “refrigerator mothers” and other forms of inadequate parenting.  For much of the latter part of the last century, families of children with autism had little, if anything, to hope for.

Dr. Lovaas, who had already been working with children with autism for decades, knew better.  Dr. Lovaas knew instinctively that poor parenting was not to blame. However, finding the root cause of autism was not Dr. Lovaas’ chosen mission. Instead, Dr. Lovaas focused his energy and attention on developing effective teaching strategies. Dr. Lovaas believed that children with autism could “learn to learn.” Back in the day, this was considered by many to be an unreachable star.

Just as Thomas Edison’s numerous lightbulb failures paved the way for Edison’s ultimate success, Dr. Lovaas painstakingly identified the “serious mistakes” that he and his colleagues at UCLA had made over the course of two decades in attempting to teach children with autism and other severe developmental disabilities.  Dr. Lovaas knew that the first step to finding an effective, core intervention would be to identify and eliminate the various approaches and strategies that had been tried, but which were demonstrably ineffective. Dr. Lovaas then worked tirelessly to break down the large and general problem of “disability” into manageable and separate behavioral units. Through years of trials, Dr. Lovaas further refined his behavior modification techniques and approaches. Over time, Dr. Lovaas’ work in the field became recognized to the point that for many, “Lovaas” became synonomous with the term “Applied Behavior Analysis.”

During the 1980’s, Dr. Lovaas and his colleagues at the UCLA Young Autism Project further refined their behavioral approaches, and they were fortunate enough to receive an important grant from the NIH allowing a most unusual and intensive approach that had never before been attempted—a forty hour per week one-to-one teaching program. In 1987, the results of Dr. Lovaas’ study, entitled Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children, were published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, a respected peer review journal.

While there certainly was some controversy over the precise “design” of Dr. Lovaas’ study, there had never before been a study reporting such a favorable outcome—many of the students who had been receiving a 40 hour per week intervention program for approximately 2-3 years had recovered function to the point that they were considered virtually indistinguishable from their typically developing peers. A 1993 follow-up study appearing in the American Journal on Mental Retardation confirmed that some six years later, all but one of the children in the “best outcome” group had retained the gains reported in the 1987 study. In 1998, the Surgeon General’s Report on Autism referred to Dr. Lovaas’ 1987 study as a “well designed study” that “….demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods [ABA] in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication.”  Vindication!

In 2002, Dr. Lovaas  asked me to write a chapter on ABA litigation for his then upcoming update to The ME Book, Teaching Individuals With Developmental Delays (Pro-Ed). Dr. Lovaas told me in the charming Norwegian accent that he never seemed to lose despite living in this country for many decades that his greatest wish was that every parent, whether residing in California, New York or Alaska, would  have access to effective autism treatments. Dr. Lovaas regularly spoke of the need for insurance reform, as he  knew full well the devastating impact  autism can have upon the family.  The dedication appearing in Dr. Lovaas’ latest book speaks volumes as to his empathy and compassion for the family: “This manual is dedicated to all parents of children with developmental delays in recognition of the heavy burdens they carry, and the models they provide for all parents to follow.”

I last sat with Dr. Lovaas and his lovely wife, Nina, at the Autism Speaks’ benefit concert in Los Angeles, headlined by Paul Simon and Jerry Seinfeld. Dr. Lovaas was truly pleased to see how far public awareness of autism had come. He also has a special appreciation for Jerry Seinfeld’s jokes, ostensibly  because so many of them are based on the nuances of human behavior.

Dr. Lovaas’ pioneering work has not only helped, but has profoundly changed the lives and futures of thousands of affected children and their families. Dr. Lovaas’ work continues to have a profound impact on the professional development of today’s autism professionals. Perhaps most importantly, where once there was darkness, Dr. Lovaas brought light and genuine hope.

The autism community clearly has lost a giant.

This guest post is by Gary Mayerson. He serves on the board of Autism Speaks and is the founder of Mayerson & Associates, the first law firm in the nation dedicated to representing children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.


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